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by Cristina F. Pereda / translation: Blanca García

Protesters cried out “Shame” after Walker's speech defending the bill on March 1.

The main characters: Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Wisconsin Senate Democrats, who fled the state on February 15.

The secondary characters: US president Barack Obama. Republican and democratic state representatives. Labor union leaders. Filmmaker Michael Moore.

The events: Senate Democrats block the vote on Walker’s bill by fleeing the state. Thousands of citizens occupy the Wisconsin state capitol to protest against Walker. Last Friday, a court order made protesters lave the building, which is still full of signs . The demonstrations continue outside. More than 70.000 people have protested during the last three weekends.

The key: A budget bill that looks to cut back on state deficit by eliminating collective bargaining rights for state workers.

The question: What does a state’s deficit have to do with workers’ union rights?

Wisconsin has a public deficit that can reach $137 million next July and $3600 million by 2013. Scott Walker, a republican governor who has been in office since January, wants to make history with a radical reform. Walker argues that a big part of that deficit is due to how much public workers’ wages and benefits cost the state. The average salaries are higher than in the private sector. And workers also get bigger benefits such as state-paid health care and pension plans.

His proposal involves making state workers pay for half of their pensions and double what they pay now for health care. But he can’t make them pay without negotiating with the unions, who are against those measures. Solution: cut back on public workers’ union bargaining rights.

Demonstration outside of the Wisconsin state capitol

And after that? Immediately after there would be easier layoffs and many workers would go to the private sector, where they would benefit from less rights. The context of economic and employment crisis doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in any citizen about to lose their job.

But what happens if Walker manages to pass the bill might be the biggest change in the history of Wisconsin’s retirement pensions system. If there’s a chain reaction, other states might follow in his footsteps.

Right now, Wisconsin has one of the most generous public systems in the US. It’s the 9th nationwide and the 30th worldwide. But it has a price. The state covers the cost of these workers’ pensions, once they retire, besides part of their health insurance. With such conditions, workers have an important motivation to always remain in their workplace.

The system makes sense in those areas in which companies invest resources to train their employees. But that doesn’t always work. In fields such as education, the current crisis has put workers’ unions in the spotlight. They obtained permanent contracts for teachers barely two years after they start working, but they also made it difficult to get rid of inefficient ones. The consequences for the educational system were already portrayed in the documentary “Waiting for Superman”.

The reduction in mobility and competitiveness, which is often blamed on unions, can sentence an economic powerhouse like the US. Which is why Wisconsin republicans, headed by Walker, defend a pension system like the one in the private sector. The worker and the company share the health care and pension payments, building a private fund while the work relationship lasts. If the employee moves to a different company, the fund’s money is still his.

Until now, states have been able to fund public workers’ benefits. Utah or Michigan anticipated the crisis by imposing conditions similar to those in the private sector to avoid the present situation. Wisconsin can’t hold anymore a system that worked last century, but not this one. The excuse is the economic crisis, demographic growth, union rights… but the only answer might be a change much more radical than to erase unions off the face of the earth.

Locked up in the Wisconsin state capitol

Michael Moore showed up this week saying that Wisconsin being bankrupt is a lie. In his speech he spoke to the anger of thousands of workers that, like in the rest of the country, wonder why should the citizens be the ones who pay once more. They already financed the rescue plans with their taxes. The $150.000 million have run out and states are in the red again.

Possible outcomes, arranged by probability:

Outcome 1: Democratic senators don’t leave their hideout in Illinois. Walker doesn’t reach a deal with them. Before passing the bill, he lays off 1500 state workers.

Outcome 2: The democratic senators turn up. The police, who has a warrant to arrest them and take them back to Wisconsin, finds them. Or an anonymous citizen finds them and turns them in to the police. They go back to Wisconsin and, forced to participate in the voting, Walker passes the bill thanks to the republican senate majority.

Outcome 3: Democrats and republicans reach an agreement through the secret talks they’ve been having for three weeks. Democrats agree to state workers having to pay more for their benefits and republicans withdraw the proposal to eliminate union and collective bargaining rights.

Outcome 1+2+3: Whatever happens, we will be hearing about Wisconsin until the 2012 election. We will see Obama – probably the democratic candidate – and his republican opponent debate on this during the whole campaign. Every candidate will have to answer questions about deficit, the American economic future, workers’ rights and, above all, how they would have handled the Wisconsin issue. Hopefully, someone will have found the answer before.